In August 1945, an Army fighter pilot named Jerry Yellin climbed into the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang and took off from an airfield on Iwo Jima. His mission, the mission of his wingman, a 19-year-old kid named Phil Schlamberg, and those in the B-29s they were escorting, was to attack the enemy airfields near Nagoya in Japan.
The talk of Japanese surrender was in the air, but then so was Jerry Yellin, on what would be the final combat mission of World War II.
Yellin and the other pilots had been told to listen for the code word “Utah,” which meant the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. But the word never came and it was only after Jerry Yellin landed back on Iwo Jima that he found out the Japanese had surrendered a few hours before he and the others had bombed and strafed the erstwhile enemy.
Worse, when young Phil Schlamberg’s plane didn’t make it back, Jerry Yellin realized the kid had died needlessly.
Jerry Yellin returned to the United States with a paralyzing case of post-traumatic stress. He tried to numb his feelings with booze but that only made things worse. He couldn’t get the images of thousands of rotting bodies on Iwo Jima out of his head. He kept losing jobs.
He kept thinking about Phil Schlamberg, just a kid. He thought about killing himself.
After years of suffering in silence, he began meditating and his brain began to heal.
Even so, he couldn’t get over his hatred of the Japanese. He had seen what they had done in war and it was brutal and Jerry Yellin just couldn’t get over that.
Then he went to Japan on a business trip in 1983 and stood in the middle of Tokyo and imagined bombs raining down on the place and something inside him shifted. Jerry Yellin felt an odd empathy for an old enemy.
Life is funny. Years later, his son Robert moved to Japan and fell in love with a Japanese woman. The woman’s father, Taro Yamakawa, had trained as a kamikaze pilot but the war had ended before he had a chance to kill himself and Allied troops for the emperor. He was against the idea of his daughter marrying an American until he found out that Robert’s father had fought against the Japanese.
To Taro Yamakawa, Jerry Yellin was someone to honor, because he fought for his country.
The two old soldiers met and, through a translator, made peace with each other and with something bigger than both of them. They stood together, proudly, watching their children marry each other. Jerry Yellin and Taro Yamakawa remained the best of friends for the rest of their lives.
Jerry Yellin died a couple of weeks ago. He was 93 and spent half of those years helping veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress.
His great friend, Kevin Jarvis, the director of veterans services in Malden, had traveled to Iwo Jima with Jerry and was looking forward to catching up with him in Washington next month at the 73rd anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima.
Instead, he was left to reflect on a genuine American hero, a man who knew the cost of war and what it does to warriors, and who spent the rest of his life helping those warriors get to a place that he was lucky enough to find after so many years of suffering.
“Listening to Jerry’s stories about flying in the very last mission over Japan and landing on Iwo Jima and then struggling over the years was fascinating and heartbreaking,” Kevin Jarvis said. “But then it always ended with his joy and pride, with a smile as he spoke about his three grandchildren who live in Japan.”
There is an old Japanese proverb which holds that the righteous man has many hardships. Jerry Yellin was a righteous man who used those hardships to help so many others. He was, in a life of war and peace, a mensch.
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